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Canon EOS 5D Review

Canon EOS 5D
“The EOS 5D is a bruiser and there's no mistaking it for anything than what it is”
  • First "affordable" full frame D-SLR
  • Definition of "affordable" is for Bill Gates


Let’s get it right on the table. The Canon EOS 5D is ridiculously expensive when compared to the 200-plus digital cameras currently available. At $3,299 for the body only, this D-SLR is for Porsche drivers who don’t mind being weighed down by a 2-pound plus camera. We’re reviewing it for a couple of reasons: first the camera offers major breakthroughs that eventually will trickle down to more mainstream models (read that as more affordable). But perhaps most important is the fact we simply could! What red-blooded American wouldn’t want to take a Porsche 911 Carrera 4S for a spin—or to try out this over-the-top camera? Now is it worth the cash? Ah, that’s the $5,000 question…

Features and Design

Before getting into an in-depth description of the EOS 5D, it’s important to explain why this camera is such a breakthrough. The key is the fact it uses a full-frame 12.8MP CMOS imaging device. A full-frame imager eliminates the digital factor that impacts almost all Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras (the $7,000 16.7MP Canon EOS-1 Ds Mark II is the only other exception). The EOS 5D is much smaller than the EOS-1 Ds Mark II, also adding to its appeal (28.6 ounces versus 42.9 without lens or battery).

Full-frame refers to the size of a 35mm film frame. With these larger imaging devices, any lens used is the stated focal length; it’s not multiplied by the typical 1.6 digital factor from cameras that use imagers smaller than a 35mm film frame, called APS-sized sensors. This is really critical for wide-angle lenses since they are no longer wide angle because the focal length is multiplied. On the positive side, it’s good for telephoto lenses since a 200mm is now 320mm but your favorite 10-22mm zoom is now 16-35.2mm radically changing how and what you can shoot. Canon calls this retaining your lens’ original optical signature, a fancy way of saying your 35mm glass is what you originally bought. Anyone who has a collection of Canon EF lenses should welcome this. And with the sensor’s larger surface area, pixels can be bigger (8.2 microns for the 5D) compared to 5.5 for the 10MP Sony DSC-R1 and 12MP Nikon D2x. The larger pixels deliver more accurate colors with less digital noise. Picture quality confirms this (see Performance section).

Now let’s take a tour of the camera. As stated it has a 12.8MP CMOS sensor that takes 4368 x 2912 pixel images in JPEG or RAW formats. The only other “mainstream” 12MP D-SLR is the Nikon D2x with a $5,000 price tag—and it does not have a full-frame imager (23.7 x 15.7mm versus 35.8 x 23.9mm for the 5D). Doesn’t the 5D seem like a bargain now?

Weighing 1.5 pounds without lens and battery, the EOS 5D is a bruiser and there’s no mistaking it for anything than what it is—a high-priced, high-performance D-SLR. It measures 6 x 4.4 x 3 (WHD, in inches). The black-bodied camera has a fairly plain front, dominated by the lens mount that accepts all Canon EF series lenses (but not EF-S like the less expensive EOS 20D or Digital Rebel XT). There’s also a lens release button, a depth of field preview key and a self-timer lamp. The pistol grip has a great feel as well as a nicely placed shutter button and jog wheel to make menu adjustments. Near the wheel is an LCD screen to check the camera’s status, a button to light up the LCD, AF/WB, Drive/ISO, and metering/exposure compensation keys. There is no built-in flash like the more consumer-oriented EOS 20D or Digital Rebel XT but there is a hot shoe. Unfortunately there’s no AF Assist lamp. You’ll also find a large mode dial with the usual settings such as Auto, aperture- and shutter priority, manual, bulb, Program AE and custom. Unlike most other mode dials there are no options for Scene modes so this is clearly targeted to more experienced (and flush) photographers. Canon did offer something new called Picture Styles that combine processing parameters and color matrix settings, almost like choosing a type of film for a specific result but it’s not the Scene modes found in most consumer-oriented digicams.

The Standard setting produces images that are crisp and vivid with the sharpness set to mid-scale and the color tone and saturation set to obtain vivid colors. In the Portrait setting, the color tone and saturation are set to obtain nice skin tones with the sharpness set one step weaker than the Standard setting so the skin and hair look softer. Under the Landscape setting, the color tone and saturation are set to obtain deep blues and greens, the sharpness is set one step stronger than Standard so the outline of mountains, trees, and buildings look crisper. The Neutral setting is the same as the default setting for EOS-1 series cameras where natural color reproduction is obtained and no sharpness is applied. This is the setting Canon suggests you use for developing RAW files. Monochrome is the same as the EOS 20D camera’s monochrome (black-and-white) setting and with User Defined, you can create and save three of your own preferred settings.

The rear is dominated by a 2.5-inch LCD screen rated an excellent 230K. This is for reviewing your images and scrolling through the menus. Like all D-SLRs you have to frame your shots through the viewfinder. Naturally this one has a diopter adjustment and an excellent field of view. The usual keys are nicely identified including Menu, Info, Jump, Playback, Delete, a quick control dial with set key, AE lock and AF point selection. On the right side is the CompactFlash card slot while the left houses the USB and video out ports along with PC and remote control terminals. On the bottom is the battery compartment and tripod mount. The battery is rated a solid 800 shots per the CIPA (Camera and Imaging Products Association) standard.

The EOS 5D is supplied with an excellent software bundle including Digital Photo Professional 2.0 for handling RAW files for PCs and Macs. A separate disk holds the software instruction manual. The camera is supplied with a 180-page user’s manual and a cute little Pocket Guide to get you started quickly. Canon has even set up a web site to help owners of EOS D-SLRs ( Given the richness of capabilities, anyone buying a 5D should check it out. The camera comes with the usual cables but no CompactFlash card (definitely budget for at least a 1 gig or greater high-speed edition).

After charging the battery and loading a 1GB Lexar Professional (80x) CF card, it was time to give the camera and ourselves a workout.

Canon EOS 5D
Image Courtesy of Canon

As I don’t have a collection of Canon lenses, the company supplied a 16-35mm f/2.8 USM zoom that costs around $1,400. Taking this $5,000 package to the streets definitely gives one pause; strolling through a bad neighborhood was clearly out of the question no matter how good the photographic opportunities! And at 54 ounces (3-plus pounds) without a flash, this ready-to-shoot rig gives your arms a nice workout.

The response time of this camera is unbelievably fast. Turn the power switch and it fires up in about a second. There’s barely a pause between the time you depress the shutter to focus and the image is captured. If you feel like taking a series of shots of the kids’ playing ball or a race car zooming around a track, the 5D can take 60 high-resolution JPEGs or 17 RAW files at 3 frames per second without taking a breather (the 12MP Nikon D2x takes 22 JPEGs or 17 RAW files at 3 fps). Yes, there are faster cameras out there including the 5 fps EOS 20D ($1,500) or the ridiculous 8MP EOS-1D Mark II n at 8.5 fps ($4,000) but they’re not full-frame cameras. The full-frame $7,000 EOS-1DS Mark II is 4 fps but it costs twice as much. In other words, this is no big deal except for the most demanding uses.

This camera has every tweak you could possibly want including ISO options of 50-3200. Now having a wide palette is one thing but it doesn’t do you any good if your images are swimming in digital artifacts. With the 5D, there are few to be seen, even at 1600 and 3200. I had to do some pretty intense blowups to find any. 13×19 prints would be no problem with this camera.

I also used the Picture Styles settings for appropriate shots such as Portraits, Landscapes and so on but primarily the Standard default setting. It wasn’t too difficult scrolling through the menus to get to the settings but it would be a lot more convenient to access to them if there was an icon on the mode dial. I really liked the coloration of the Portrait mode but it’s geared for skin tones rather than furry creatures such as my Norwegian Forest Cat. For her I used the Standard setting and adjusted the aperture to get a subtle blurring. Other shots were taken in Landscape to give the winter skies some pop as well as many in straight Auto.

As always, images were printed with a minimal amount of adjustments after developing RAW files; these files and JPEGs were directly printed on 8.5×11 glossy paper. Needless to say the prints were dynamite. The EOS 5D is about as sophisticated a digital camera as you can buy and simply takes great photographs…no matter if you shoot in Auto, use the Picture Styles, adjust color temperature, make all the adjustment yourself…you name it.

Canon EOS 5D
Image Courtesy of Canon

This is a terrific D-SLR as one would expect for the price. There’s no getting away from the fact it’s the smallest and lightest full-frame D-SLR available and it delivers superb picture quality. Digital noise is practically a thing of the past. But you’ll pay for the privilege (figure $5K if you’re starting from scratch for a quality EF lens or three and a Speedlight flash). This is a serious commitment and I would have no reservation recommending it if the 5D cost closer to $2,000 for the body instead of three grand. Given its high price I suggest prospective D-SLR purchasers with more limited resources look at the many kits available for less than $1,500. The 8.2MP Canon EOS 20D would be a good start since it’s operationally very similar and costs $1,400 for the body only in the real world. You won’t get all of the pluses of this camera but you’ll be able to pay for gas and heating bills. And for those taking a Carrera for a spin, the EOS 5D would look just great resting on the passenger seat. Bottom line? For serious, demanding and wealthy photographers only.

  • Excellent picture quality
  • Full-frame CMOS imager
  • Very fast response
  • Very little noise
  • No built-in flash or AF Assist lamp
  • No traditional Scene modes

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